Since the turn of the century, the Iraqi public have certainly not enjoyed political stability. The decision of the United States and its allies to invade the country in 2003 set a high threshold for expected disruption. Yet, the seizure of vast swathes of territory by Islamic State a decade later obliterated this threshold, setting it exponentially higher. This inclination toward existential crises seemingly hasn’t abated either; over the last month, the country has been swept by a vociferous protest movement which has persisted despite a range of concessions offered by an increasingly embattled establishment. Nevertheless, somewhat uncharacteristically, the current wave of unrest hasn’t been instigated by the interests of foreign powers, or the ideological and religious zealotry of a narrow, extremist sect. Rather, it is borne from the frustration of the mainstream towards a series of unequivocal failures on the part of the governing elite, as well as increasing trepidation relating to the influence of regional actors over the country’s domestic affairs.
On one level, the deep dysfunctionality of Iraq’s economy would be sufficient to warrant the removal of any self-respecting government. Despite having the world’s fourth-largest reserves of oil, a significant proportion of the Iraqi population languishes in poverty. In addition, while its unemployment rate of 7.9% (2018) isn’t astronomically high by international standards, youth unemployment is significantly higher, at just over 16%. Against a backdrop of regular electricity and water shortages, it is easy to understand why the country’s youthful population, with 58% aged 24 or younger, are feeling increasingly hopeless. However, arguably most damaging is the level of public consciousness towards the obscene extent of corruption throughout Iraqi society. Out of 180 states assessed by Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, Iraq was ranked 168th.
Additionally, there is a strong political undercurrent to the opposition movement. Following the collapse of the Ba’athist regime, Iraq became a parliamentary democracy, albeit one characterised by sectarian divides. Under the informal muhasasa system, the presidency is traditionally reserved for an Iraqi Kurd, the premiership for a Shia Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament for a Sunni Muslim. In theory, this arrangement would allow for an equal distribution of power between the country’s different ethnic groups, and mitigate against the possibility of one dominating the others. In practise, it has crystallised a permanent political elite within each group and has facilitated the emergence of foreign influence in the country, the most crucial factor driving the present discontent.
The current state of affairs in the Middle East is a particularly febrile one, with regional powers jostling for influence and control in an increasingly aggressive manner. In particular, tensions between Iran and its Shi’ite satellites on one hand, and the Sunni gulf states in loose conjunction with Israel on the other, has reached fever pitch. However, rather than playing out through traditional, overt channels, this conflict has instead primarily occurred through proxy conflicts. Rather than directly attacking Saudi Arabia, Iran has instead backed the Shi’ite Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen, forcing Riyadh into a protracted, expensive conflict and sullying its international reputation in the process.
Iraq is yet another battleground for this intra-Islamic warfare. As one of its largest neighbours, Tehran understandably has a strategic interest in ensuring that Baghdad is kept onside. Hence, it has invested significantly in acquiring a foothold in Iraq’s political system. In particular, this has manifested through the increasing presence of Iranian militias in Iraq, as well as its strong backing and affiliation with the Fatah Alliance, a Shi’ite political movement that won 48 out of the 329 parliamentary seats in last year’s general election.
By demanding fundamental structural reforms to the Iraqi system, protesters are threatening to unpick the arrangements that have hitherto been conducive to Tehran’s regional interests. However, even more crucially, the current uprising has primarily been led by the country’s Shia majority, who should theoretically be the most sympathetic to Iran. This state of affairs has evidently caused alarm among the Ayatollah and his immediate subordinates, as the response of the Iraqi government and its militias has been decisive and brutal. At the time of writing, at least 300 people have been killed and thousands wounded, with no end to the casualties in sight. In addition, when the resignation of the Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, seemed nearly inevitable at the start of the month, Tehran intervened. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, an elite unit within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, rushed to Baghdad to ensure that militia leaders didn’t withdraw their backing for the embattled premier.
Paradoxically, Soleimani’s intervention provides the perfect anecdote to illustrate the rationale of the protesters. Sure, the disruption caused by civil unrest has resulted in significant damage to the Iraqi economy, but for a significant proportion of the country’s population, what difference will this make? Much of Iraq’s revenue would find its way into the pockets of corrupt officials and politicians regardless. Rather, the protests are addressing a much more fundamental issue that is of great importance not only for Iraq, but also the wider Middle East; should governance occur first and foremost in accordance to the interests of the national body politic – predominantly comprised by the general public that actually elects the politicians – or the interests of foreign actors, who perceive the citizens of other countries as pawns to be assimilated into their hegemonic ambitions? If recent events are anything to go by, the people of Iraq have been resoundingly clear in their judgement. They most desire to control their own political and economic destiny, even if this jeopardises existing alliances.